This is the age of the polymath pop star. Once, pop’s chart-busters and arena-fillers were musicians and musicians only. Today, they’re cosmetics moguls (Rihanna), fashion industry colossuses (Beyoncé, Kanye West) and Oscar-nominated actors (Lady Gaga): amorphously talented titans of creativity whose genius is allowed to spill into side hustles in other disciplines. No one embodies this trend more than Donald Glover, whose funk-soul success under the stage name Childish Gambino is just another notch on one of the most glittering resumes in pop culture.
He’s the breakaway star of cult comedy Community, Han Solo’s lothario friend in the latest Star Wars blockbuster and the creator of award-winning TV drama Atlanta. He’s also a screenwriter, DJ, director, dancer and producer, sparking admiring exclamations of “is there anything he can’t do?” in gushing profile pieces (the answer, so far, appears to be no) and making his polymath peers look lazy in comparison (sorry, Kanye).
On Sunday night, he adds another title to his long list of guises: priest. “Put your phones away, this is church!” he commands the crowd shortly into his set at London’s O2 arena, a show rescheduled from last year after a foot injury. The 35-year-old – topless, sporting white jeans and a beard dyed Simba blond (he’s soon to star in Disney’s remake of The Lion King) – has hardly performed in the UK since the release of his third album Awaken, My Love! in 2016, and seems intent on making up for lost time.
He roars through blaxploitation soundtrack funk jams like “Boogieman” flanked by backing singers in gospel gowns; steps into his congregation for a tender snippet of “Stand Tall”; and throws spasmodic shapes around a stage lit up by pink lasers when recent single “Summertime Magic” erupts in its carnival of electronic pop colour.
The evening hits its frenzied peak halfway through when Glover leaps into “This Is America”, his pummelling, bass-driven single that sparked a thousand essays last year thanks to its music video. Viewed with that video, it’s a tension-filled think piece in musical form, evoking school massacres, the Ferguson riots and his country’s uncomfortable, evolving relationship with what it means to be black. Let loose on a sweaty room without the clip, it becomes a primal howl, an exorcism, its intellectualism giving way to pure, kinetic, chaotic energy.
“I lived here for a while last year and saw you guys really going through some s***,” Glover tells the audience as the show charges on, showing it’s not just American politics he’s plugged into. He recalls visiting the site of the Grenfell disaster and offers his bewilderment at Brexit, before tearing on with the show.
Older hits “Sober” and “V 3005” lead an impassioned encore that reminds you how far he’s come and how improbable his ascension to pop’s top table once seemed. Back then, Glover was a critical punching bag attempting to claw back credibility. His 2011 album, Camp, was derided, famously scoring a 1.6 out of 10 rating from Pitchfork as rap fans dismissed his punchline-heavy hip hop as the vanity project of a TV star whose project name, taken from an internet Wu-Tang Clan name generator, showed a disregard towards the genre.
He finishes tonight with the anthem that helped change all that, rewiring his reputation once and for all. “You wanna make it right, but now it’s too late, my peanut butter chocolate cake with Kool-Aid,” he sings in immaculate falsetto on “Redbone”, his subdued 2016 slink of throwback funk guitars and race politics-infused warnings to “stay woke” in a world of depressing, unending racial division. It’s transformed into a caterwauling wig-out by his live band that brings the evening to a deafening close: “I tried to warn you this was church,” he screams over the noise.
This might have been one of his last ever live performances – Glover has claimed to be putting the project to bed after this run of dates, and earlier in the night told the audience: “If you bought a ticket to tonight, you bought a ticket to the last Childish Gambino tour.” If that really is the case, this is one hell of a sermon to bow out on.